The Great Jeff


By Tony Abbott

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Perfect for fans of Gary D. Schmidt comes the companion to the modern classic Firegirl from acclaimed writer Tony Abbott — now in paperback!

Life hasn’t been great for Jeff Hicks. After years at his beloved St. Catherine’s, he’s forced to spend eighth grade in the public middle school, which he hates. He’s no longer speaking to his former best friend, Tom Bender, because of “that burned girl” Jessica Feeney. But worst of all, his family is changing, and it’s not for the better.

When his mom comes home announcing that she’s lost her job, Jeff begins to worry about things far beyond his years: How will they pay the rent? Will his absentee dad step up and save the day? Is his mom drinking too much? And ultimately, where will they live?

The Great Jeff is a powerful look at the life of a troubled boy who finds his life spiraling out of control.




I was five when I saw my first person die.

My grandfather worked for the railroad. He was a conductor until he lost half of one of his legs to diabetes two years after I was born. That’s a sugar disease that kills your circulation. Your nerves die because your blood doesn’t get all the way to the things farthest away from your heart. Your feet and legs.

Grandpa seemed old to me then. I realized later he wasn’t really. Sixty-seven. Not old enough to just die. But he looked ancient, gray and white, not much of him there.

It was my fifth birthday. I was standing in the doorway of his room. Grandpa had lived with us for a few years but hadn’t come with us when we went away that weekend. He didn’t really go anywhere. We came home and found him gurgling in his throat. Jeff, my mother called from the kitchen. Jeff, don’t bother him. She was phoning 911 and his doctor, whose name was written next to the wall phone. My father was around somewhere, but I don’t remember where.

My grandmother had passed away from heart problems before I was born, so Grandpa was alone. Mom took care of him and loved him more than anyone. He had a funny smell that day. His breathing was wet and crackly. Grandpa loved me a lot, I think he did. When his eyelids fluttered and opened, I went over to his bed. It was in the corner of the little downstairs room between two gray walls. He smelled like pee. Where is his caretaker! Jeff, get back in here. I looked down the sheet covering him to see if I could find pee stains. His regular leg looked like a bone resting on the pillow under the sheet, that’s how skinny it was. One white foot stuck out. It was black on the bottom of the toes and on his heel. The other leg ended above where his knee would be.

When I looked at his face his eyes were on me.

“Jeffie,” he said.

My mom was calling Jeff, Jeff, but the louder she got the less I heard her. He said some wet things for a while and he sounded choky. I answered when I thought it was a question. His breath was thick and bad, and not all he was saying made sense to me.

When he told me the thing that was going to be the last thing he said, I didn’t know it yet, so I tried to answer him. While I was talking he coughed funny and his mouth stayed open and he was dead. I was the only one in his room for that. After a minute or two of looking at him I touched his cheek. His skin was warm even a little after he died.

I remembered Grandpa this afternoon when my mom came home from work and was calling “Jeff! Jeff!” from the second she opened the door.

Don’t ask me why I thought about an old man lying in his bed between two gray walls, but I did.

“In the basement,” I yelled.

“Get up here.”

Normally Rich Downing is over on Fridays and we read comic books together or watch TV in my basement. Other days he has things to do and doesn’t come. Sometimes I go to his house, but it’s weird there.

When I came up the stairs to the kitchen she whispered, “Is your friend Tom here?”

“No, Mom,” I said, “it’s Rich now. It’s never Tom anymore. He’s not my friend. Rich is. Rich has come over every Friday for a long time now.” I tried to tell her that he was actually in the bathroom right now, but she cut me off.

“Well, I’m on vacation!” She slammed her bag on the kitchen table, spilling stuff out of it. Her eyes were wet and red. That wasn’t new. The new part was that they were bloodshot right after work instead of the morning after being out with her nurse friends.

I think I laughed somehow. “Vacation? Disney World, obviously. I’ll go pack—”

“They fired me.”


“Fairchild cut two nursing positions. And when the fat one made a stink, saying they fired her because she was fat, they turned right around and gave her my job. Jeff, I don’t have a job.”

My blood froze. “So what does that mean? When are you getting it back?”

“Ha.” She opened the refrigerator and pulled out a tall green bottle. “You don’t get it back, smarty. And because I’ve only been there since July, less than three months, I won’t get unemployment benefits either. Honey, we’re up the creek.”

Which is not what she really said.

“What about St. Damien’s?” I asked.

She drank her glass empty and refilled it. “What about it?”

St. Damien’s is the Catholic high school you go to after St. Catherine’s, which I had to leave after seventh grade because of no money. Rich still went to St. Catherine’s. Everybody I knew still went there and was planning to go to Damien’s next fall. Some of the teachers were moving up, too.

She looked at me. “Well?”

If you really want to know, my father ripped something out of me when he stopped paying for Catholic school, and I had to go to public school with only a year left. That’s a curse. I’d built up a thing at St. Catherine’s. A style. Not everybody liked it, but everybody knew it.

If you know me, you won’t think I can love anything and you’d be wrong. St. Catherine’s had a smell I smelled every morning when I walked inside from the bus. That smell said that no matter what I’d left at home, I was going to be all right there. Not that I ever asked for it either, but Mrs. Tracy always cut me some slack when I said something off-the-wall. Not all the teachers did but she did. Hard to build up an adoring fan base at a new school, floating around with nine hundred other kids.

I stared at her face through the bottom of her wineglass. “Dad said after this one stinking year, he’d send more money. You said you were saving, too, and together it would be enough so I could go to Damien’s next year.”

“Saving? When did I say that?”

“In the summer. ‘Because it means so much to you,’ you said. I hate public school, Mom, I hate it.”

“Well, you’re going to have to hate it a little longer.”

“But all my friends—”

“Friends?” Her face pruned up. “Jeff, your friends abandoned you. They let you go like you were nothing. Real friends don’t do that. Ha, but your friends did. Some friends, I say.”

It was true, I guess. Some of them abandoned me. One of them mostly.

“Not Mrs. Tracy. Not Rich either,” I said. “Who by the way is—”

“And your father? Well, he was plain lying to you. He lies to everybody. Sometimes I think that’s where you learned it. Listening to him.”

“Thanks a lot, Mom.”

She made a noise in her throat and lowered her glass. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t fair, but come on. Your father doesn’t have two shiny dimes to rub together.” Which she said as if it made her happy. “But I’ll tell you what. He’d better pay up now. He’d better chip in, and not for school, that’s all I have to say.” She poured out a third glass. “We’ll catch up on our rent.”

“Rent, what rent? I thought we owned our house.”

“If you think that, you don’t pay enough attention.”

“You never said we didn’t own it. People own houses.”

“We never owned it, honeybunch. And I’m a little late on last month’s rent. Except, you know what, I’ll get it from your father now.…”

She didn’t finish but started buzzing around the kitchen, turning over stuff as if she couldn’t find her cell phone, which had slid out of her bag onto the table. She fluttered all over, muttering, because she didn’t want me saying anything else. I knew the way she did things. The room belonged to her now, and I was just standing in it.

My father hasn’t lived with us for almost four years. He’s a paper dad, if you know what I mean. If there was a test and the question was, Who is your father? I would have to put his name down: James R. Hicks. But he was gone long before he left the house. He hated when Grandpa came to live with us. He wanted to hide him away, give him the closed-in back porch instead of a regular room.

“He’s always here!” he’d say when he came home from being out.

“Because he can’t walk!” my mother would answer, which I’m sure Grandpa heard.

Then my father “fell in love” (which I don’t really know what that means) and Mom found out and he moved out of the house. For a little while he was living in Stamford, which is a few towns down, and I used to see him fairly regularly. Then he moved to New York with his girlfriend, and I don’t see him as much, only on holidays, a few times a year.

He paid Mom some, because when your dad bolts it doesn’t matter why or what he says, he still has to pay for the kids he had with your mother. More paper, right? Public school was free and St. Catherine’s wasn’t, so when money got tight, like Mom said it did this past summer, they bounced me down to public school for the year.

With her cell phone tucked between her ear and her shoulder, Mom clanked among the bottles on the shelf in the fridge, keeping the door open with her knee. “Is that it? Where’s the other one?”

Did she think I drank it?

There were guys after my father left. I heard names, that’s all. Carl. Paul, who she called Skip. She talked about Ron for a few months, but he faded away, too, or moved. She never brought them home, I don’t want you to think that. How gross would it be, my mom with a boyfriend? But I never saw them. Maybe she just didn’t want them to meet me. Bottom line, none of them lasted very long.

She let the fridge door close and slammed her phone on the tabletop, swearing a streak at my father. “Voice mail, my foot!”

She grabbed her glass again, when the toilet suddenly flushed and Rich was there and we both stared at Mom sucking red drops from her empty glass.

“Who in heaven’s name are you?” she screamed.

Rich stared at me while the color drained from his face. “Uh…”

“Good one, Mom. Terrify the guests, why don’t you. Come on, Rich.” I pulled him back down to the basement while she leaned against the counter and called after me in a sloppy voice. Jeff, Jeff. I knew she’d soon be crying. She always cries after wine.

“Well, that was nice,” I said to Rich when we got downstairs. “But that’s”—and here I jerked my arms out like a stand-up comedian—“Mommy!

He laughed, so I kept this evil grin on and wiggled my eyebrows and did a silly walk to keep him laughing, which he did, but he didn’t know who I was doing.

“I get it,” he finally said. “My dad explodes sometimes. Maybe I should go.”

“Nah. It doesn’t matter.”

Rich went home anyway, closing the door behind him while my mom whimpered on the living room couch.

Funny, when I think about the last person to really love me, and the first person to have so much trouble with it, I see my mother running into my grandfather’s room that day he died. She swatted my hand away from his face as if I’d done something horrible, started bawling like she was now, and kissed his wrinkled dead cheek over and over, saying, “Daddy, oh, Daddy.”



So you’ve probably guessed this isn’t going to be a laugh riot.

On the other hand, I should tell you how funny I am. How I go around basically happy. I had this friend for a few years who I already mentioned, Tom Bender. I cracked him up every time. Just saying his name now makes me want to spit, but I could make him choke on his tongue with what I came up with. Smart stuff, too. I’m quick in my head and it goes right to my mouth. Hilarious.

Most people at my new school don’t get my kind of funny. I mean, they do, a little. Like Colin and Josh, but they’re only in two of my classes. And I’ve been there only a few weeks, so no one’s had the full Jeff experience.

I’m like the kid who has to touch stuff in stores when he passes down the aisle. I see things and have to respond. It’s how I flow. Some people think what I say is mean. Or that I try to hurt them or that I don’t care if I do.

Some of what I say or do might sting, but I don’t always mean it to. I just see things going on and make a crack. Like Groucho Marx. I still remember when I was nine and saw the Marx Brothers movie called Duck Soup. Tom Bender was there for that. It’s a crazy story about a fake country going to war. I couldn’t catch my breath and my throat and chest hurt I laughed so hard. Groucho does this silly crouching walk and twitches his eyebrows and gets a lot of dirty looks, like I do. Tom said I was like him, but without the mustache. Sorry. I won’t talk about Tom again.

Not that any of that matters. When people make up their minds about you, they only see you one way, which is the easy way for them. What I’m trying to say is that mostly when I wake up, I have a smile on my face. Sometimes I laugh myself right out of bed. It’s only later, when I remember, that my stomach begins to hurt.

Mom finally caught up with Dad on the phone late that night. I don’t know what he said, but they arranged that we’d go visit him in New York the following week.

“Once we get to his apartment,” she said at breakfast on Saturday, as if his place were all chandeliers and fireplaces, “I’ll tell him exactly what happened with my job, and what a stew we’re in, then we’ll have a talk.”

“I have things to say, too. Plus, his place is tiny.”

“And there’s something you need to know,” she said, lowering her voice and pressing my arm with her fingers. “Until then, until we see your father, you’re not saying anything to anybody. Not a word about me losing my job. Not a single word.”

“What would I say?” I asked her. “To who?”

“Because as far as they’re concerned, everything’s normal. No one can know. You’re not telling Tom or any of your other friends, you hear me?”

“I don’t have anybody to tell. And I told you a thousand times, I’m not friends with Tom Bender anymore. I hate this. You never listen when I talk.”

“Don’t smart-mouth me.”

He hasn’t been my friend since before I left St. Catherine’s. First of all, I took pity on him. He was chubby and klutzy, but he was usually around and thought I was funny, which he was right about. Then, all of a sudden, he became a jerk over this girl. Forgetting all the junk we did together, he started telling bad stories about me and my mom, I’m sure he did. Sorry, that’s it. No more stupid Tom Bender.

“What difference does it make if people know about your job anyway?” I asked.

Mom had moved to another room and didn’t hear. I finished my eggs alone and rinsed the plate. Dried egg yolk is hard to get off.

Then she was back, flapping a stack of envelopes in her hand. “Here’s something else you need to know. Don’t be surprised if I cut down on things. These bills are eating us alive. And I don’t care what they say, first thing Monday I’m going to the unemployment office and register.”

She winked as if we were getting back at someone in a sneaky way.

“I thought you couldn’t,” I said. “That they wouldn’t give you anything—”

“Let them tell me to my face when I’m standing in front of them with a stack of bills I can’t pay. If I look them square in the eye we’ll get benefits. It’s insurance. They’ll have to give me it. Until I find a new thing.”

She was so scattered and scared it was hard to make out what she meant. One thing was clear: If I got lying from my father, I’m pretty sure I got the victim thing from her.

“You mean they pay you not to work? They should. You’ve worked forever.”

“You bet I have,” she said. “I’m taking care of it. I’m on top of it.”

She ought to be. She did the same thing when the hospital let her go in January for being late too many times. I should have seen that coming. Even last fall, a year ago, a few times when I came home from school she’d be there, sleeping. It took her until this summer to find another job. Now after less than three months she’d lost that one, too.

“Plus, you need to wash that hair,” she said, sitting down at the table across from where I’d been. “People’ll think our water’s turned off. Well, not yet. So get in there. I’ll make a grocery list. You want a comic if I see one at the store?”

“I have all the new ones.”

“Good. We’ll save four dollars.”

So, yeah, I took a shower. After I toweled off I dressed in the same jeans but a clean shirt, my usual procedure. I wondered what it actually meant that Mom had lost her job. How long would it be before she had another one? Could I believe that she was taking care of it? Should I do anything differently?

I came downstairs to find she’d left for the store.

It was after ten so I headed to Rich Downing’s house.



It’s not like I chose Rich for a friend.

He chose me because I make him laugh. Hard not to do. We’re on different levels and I’m so much quicker it isn’t funny, except, of course, it is. He mostly comes to my house because I have better comics and we’re usually alone there. It was too soon to figure out if Mom’s no-job would change things like that.

Four short blocks and a dogleg through some backyards is how you get to his place. I wore a jacket and a sweatshirt under. It was cold, but not as cold as last fall, not yet. It was freezing last year at Halloween and we had snow at Thanksgiving.

Only one of their two cars was in the driveway. Rich’s father coaches soccer Saturday mornings—Rich’s younger sister plays—but his mother is usually home, and he has an older sister, too, so I can’t just walk in. I rang the bell.

His mother smiled when she opened the front door. The smile was the right shape and all, except her eyes looked over my shoulder at passing cars or the future or somewhere. I mumbled, “Hello, Mrs. Downing,” like you’re supposed to. “Is Rich home?” Which she didn’t even have to answer because he came bounding down the stairs to let me in, while she went off to another room. We went into what he called the den.

“I have to play you this. I just learned it.” He picked up his electric guitar and switched on the amplifier. The amp snapped loudly and a red light glowed on the dashboard.

He got the guitar over the summer. His father had been teaching him for a while, but this was Rich’s first electric. “Ready?” He hunched over it and placed the fingers of his left hand one by one on the strings. I could tell it was a song he had just learned because that’s not how you play anything good. To really play, your fingers move where they need to without thinking. I didn’t know how to play, but Rich wasn’t much better.

He has two electric guitars. Well, one of them’s his dad’s, a big old gold thing covered with chrome and gold knobs. If it’s there, I mostly just jang the open strings and fool with the knobs to make cool effects while Rich plays real chords on his. But when both of us play, with his real janging and my fake janging, it almost sounds like a song.

I could learn a musical instrument if I had a chance. I’m always humming. We used to have a piano at home that my mom played, and my dad bought a drum set once. They got rid of those when Grandpa moved in.

Rich’s new song was only four chords, but when he got going it was pretty good. He told me where to press strings on my guitar, so I joined in. We were strumming away and I was thinking he could maybe teach me real chords—because how hard can it be?—when something changed.

I must inspire people to be gross. I don’t know. Maybe I ask for it. The Marx Brothers were dirty sometimes. Not really, because their movies are old. But since I’m quick, people think I’m bad even though sometimes I’m just pondering nachos or hang gliding or what the president said about Korea, when all of a sudden bam, it happens.

“Courtney must have been wearing last year’s sweater,” Rich said between chords, leering like an old bum on the street. “It was tight.”

It’s like they think I’m always working dirty stuff over in my mind, so it’s okay to be disgusting in front of me in a way you wouldn’t be with other people.

I wasn’t into it, so I just nodded, but maybe I grinned, too, because then he did.

“Yeah,” he said. “You know it!”

Courtney Zisky was this long-haired dark-haired girl in our class at St. Catherine’s. I’d say she was hot except she was always pretty cold to me. Which is a small example of my humor. Seriously, Courtney was just really good-looking from every angle, and I liked to look at her, but not everything I thought was creepy.

Just then, Rich’s older sister came into the room and together he and I blasted our guitars like a band, and she said something. She had blond hair and was in high school. I don’t know why, but I jumped to my feet, mashed up my face like a rock star in pain, and started flailing away on the strings, when she suddenly reaches out and grabs the neck of the guitar.

“Did you hear me, Rich’s friend?” Her face was squinched up worse than mine.

I stopped. “What?”

“I said you better not scratch my dad’s guitar.”

“Yeah. Sure. Don’t get all…”

“Don’t get all what, Rich’s friend?” She stood a good half foot taller than me.

I didn’t want to tangle. “Don’t get all worried,” I said, and put the guitar gently back on its stand.

Rich had kept playing through this and twisted his fingers into the next chord, but the thing was blown now, ruined. His sister left the room, saying, “I don’t like you, Rich’s friend.”

I gave her a face behind her back. “Let’s do something else.”

“Yeah, my fingers hurt.”

We went out the kitchen door to his backyard. It had clouded over, and it was colder than before. I picked up a dog ball. Rich’s dog died a couple of weeks ago, but her toys were still around. I lobbed it to him.

“Richie, don’t go anywhere,” his mother called from the back door.

He waved to her and turned to me. “So what your mother was saying yesterday, that’s not true, is it? That she got fired and you’re going to lose your house? How does that even happen?”

My chest buzzed with adrenaline. “Lose our house? What are you talking about?”

“I thought she said—”

I was so quick I almost didn’t know where it came from. “Ha, no! She was joking about somebody at her work. She was doing a voice, that’s all. There are all kinds of nutty people at her job. Old freaky ladies.”

Rich grinned. “My dad does that a lot. He’s great at voices.”

My mother had told me not to tell anyone. Maybe it was already too late.

“Rich, lunch,” his older sister called, leaning out on the back step. “Just you.”

Rich did his best to laugh that off. “She’s joking. Come on in.”

It wasn’t like I wanted to be there. I could shut myself in my room or hide out in my basement, but if Mom was back from the store she’d ask me to eat lunch with her or listen to her talk. Since yesterday she seemed weirdly clingy.

“I gotta go anyway,” I said. “My mom promised to get me all the new comics.”

“Yeah, Mrs. Tracy gave us a ton of reading I really gotta start.”

So I left. On the way down the street I sort of realized that Rich was the only actual person in my world, and I didn’t even like him that much. How do you like somebody? Would I know if I did?

I stuck my key in the lock and pushed into the house. “Mom?” She was still at the store. The living room seemed farther away than when I left, like I was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I stood in Grandpa’s old room. Maybe I held my breath. I don’t know. Lose our house? Friends? St. Catherine’s. Rich. Tom Stupid Bender? I felt light-headed and went upstairs, fell into bed, and pulled the covers over my face.



Bad things happen on Fridays. The other days of the week, sure, but Fridays more.


  • Praise for The Great Jeff:

A Curbed Best Kids Book of 2019

*" exquisitely moving yet completely age-appropriate dive into a kid's experience of impoverishment."—BCCB, starred review
  • "Jeff's search to understand himself and the harsh world around him is breathtaking."—Patricia Reilly Giff, author of Newbery honor winners Pictures of Hollis Woods and Lily's Crossing
  • "In a body of stellar work, The Great Jeff may be Abbott's finest."—Nora Raleigh Baskin, award winning author of Anything But Typical, Ruby on the Outside, and Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story
  • "A moving, realistic coming-of-age tale."
  • "...a hopeful coming-of-age story that portrays the challenges of poverty in a realistic and relatable way."—Booklist
  • "A powerful and realistic story of a boy coming of age with a family in crisis."—School Library Journal
  • "For fans of Firegirl, this follow-up is a must-read...this novel is a solid addition to any library."School Library Connection
  • Praise for Firegirl:
  • * "Tom's connection to Jessica changes his perspective on himself, his peers and friendship, and underscores the reward of reaching out to another.... This novel maybe be brief, but it leaves a big impact."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • * "This isn't the usual book about adjustment to differences; instead, Abbot brilliantly explores the kids' struggle to manage this intrusion of abnormality into their lives.... An understanding yet thought-provoking novel."
    The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review
  • "A touching story of friendship that is easy to read yet hard to forget."
    School Library Journal
  • "In this poignant story, readers will recognize that even by doing small acts of kindness, people stand to gain more than they lose."
  • On Sale
    Mar 17, 2020
    Page Count
    304 pages